In an increasingly connected world, criminals, terrorists and crooked states turn to digital weaponry. Indeed, cybercrime is on the rise and 2017 brought some of the biggest cyberattacks in history. According to experts these attacks are thus not anomalies, but symptoms of the new normal. Nevertheless, even though these developments are to be taken seriously, we should also consider the positive sides of cybercrime.

Our observations

  • Ransomware dominated the cybercrime landscape in 2017. Notpetya and Wannacry belong to the strongest ransomware attacks we saw in history. Although the net profits of these attacks are quite low, total costs involving these attacks are estimated at $4 billion. In particular these costs are caused by postponed production, destruction of data and reputational harm.
  • Cyberwarfare takes an important role in the development of new weapons that eventually also end up in the hands of cybercriminal groups and organisations. Several big attacks of last year have used leaked NSA technology in their malware.
  • Simultaneously, these attacks also provide a big boost to innovation within the cybersecurity sector in the battle against the cyber criminals.
  • The internet of things makes cars vulnerable to hacking. However, at the same time these developments lead to expertise on collision avoidance. Last year Intel bought Mobileye in the biggest security acquisition so far.
  • Although the intervention of Russia in the election of VS was a big shock to a lot of people, it has also invoked societal debate about broader issues of filter bubbles, targeted messaging and fake news and triggered states to take a more active role in cyberspace.

Connecting the dots

Cybercrime is multi-headed monster. There is wide variety of actors, from lonely nerds to state-run operations, using different weapons from basic DDoS attacks to more sophisticated ransomware and high-tech targeted attacks. The damage they do also varies greatly from outing unfaithful husbands to financial loss and damaged factories. The greatest damage they may do, however, could be a loss of trust in cyberspace which stops businesses and users from making optimal use of digital tools.

It is quite logical that hackers and cybercrime have a strong negative connotation. However, it might be interesting to examine some positive points. First, if we interpret the internet as an antifragile system, ‘shocks’ could ultimately strengthen the system instead of only creating continuous chaos and financial costs. Although the statistics of some ransomware attacks may seem staggering, relative to the size of the internet are merely small deviations. We could thus regard cybercrime as an inherent feature of an infrastructure that needs these shocks to improve itself.

In addition, these attacks create awareness among states and citizens. The pressure of cybercrime can result in controversial measures but at the same time it opens up an important societal debate. Instead of a disappearing and irrelevant nation-state in cyberspace, states could reinvent themselves with regard to current threats.

A strong national policy concerning cybercrime could restore some of the lost trust within democracies. With an increasing pressure along non-physical borders, the national state can regain some of its urgency in providing safety in these new domains. This, however, does not imply that all nations respond uniformly. Instead, countries hold different perspectives concerning the intervention of states on the internet. For example, citizens from China show less resistance and broad acceptance of China’s wish to set up a social credit systems that rewards good behaviour and punishes bad citizens. This means there is no such thing as an optimal worldwide response. The pressure from cybercriminal demands a response from governments and an appropriate answer can help struggling states redefine themselves.

Second, a part of the activities from hackers in cyberspace has revealed injustices, government surveillance, financial malpractices and fiscal fraud. These practices provide an auditing function and can help stabilize and improve democracies. Third, new technologies and the internet of things raise a lot of cyber threats, but we must not forget the positive numbers. The 2017 Cybercrime report mentions that overall crime statistics could decrease with more than 20 percent thanks to a combination of metropolitan sensors, smart systems and improving home-security. Moreover, researchers estimated that a reduction of traffic accidents caused by (partly) autonomous driving cars could save up to 30.000 US lives in the next decade.

Implications

  • In the Netherlands the WIV caused an ongoing debate between the trade-off of freedom and safety. The bill gives the government more authority to intercept communication without concrete suspicions. It led to a petition against the proposal which is currently signed by more than 400.000 Dutch citizens.
  • Cybersecurity is ever growing and Gartner Inc. predicts a 7.6% grow to $93 billion dollar in 2018. For the following years it anticipates a 12-15% grow every year totalling a cumulative of 1 billion over the next five years.